Thursday, 22 March 2018

Solider Obscura written by Tim Foley and directed by Scott Handcock

What’s it about: Braxiatel has always planned for contingencies. As hostilities escalate, he takes Ace into a deadly region of spacetime – The Obscura – to locate an ancient research station. But Ace is about to learn more about Irving Braxiatel than anyone should know. Some soldiers are ready for this fight, but some will not make it through the first round.

Born Again Brax: ‘Do you know how many battles I’ve fought? How many plans I’ve made? How many deaths I’ve caused? Next to me Ace you seem ever so small!’ I loved the moment where Brax snaps at her and says she has been coasting her way through this mission with little but wisecracks. He’s far less enamoured with her sarcasm than the Doctor is and he is isn’t afraid to let her know. Brax is pretty much always wonderful but when he is addressing my own personal issues with a long overused character, I’m simply delighted with him. He’s not sure he can trust her with top secret information about the weapon and he asks that she trusts him to guard that knowledge. There’s an element of danger to Ace working with Brax because we have seen him do terrible things in the past to people that he professed to care about. Where does that leave someone like Ace when the stakes are this high? Ace can’t imagine Brax with a gun, it just doesn’t seem subtle enough. Danna taught Braxiatel everything he knows, including how to exploit a dangerous situation to his advantage. Given his Machiavellian machinations in the Bernice and Gallifrey ranges, from heartless to downright psychotic she certainly taught him well. Why is everybody so suspicious of him all of a sudden? Even he is paranoid that Danna has betrayed him when she fails to shoot a Dalek at close range. The truth he isn’t prepared to admit is that his mentor has gotten old and lost her edge. I fucking love Brax when he is put on the spot and has to improvise and I was creasing up when he was trying to convince the Daleks that Ace was the secret weapon (Armed Computer Entity). When they suggest he is lying to them he is affronted at the very idea that such a thing is possible. When Danna speaks to Brax after her murder it is unclear whether it is a manifestation of his guilt or the effect of the temporal energies in the Obscura.

Oh Wicked: Ace is serving as Brax’s companion these days, which works a lot better than most of her stories with the seventh Doctor these days. It’s a similar set up with a morally ambiguous Time Lord to bark at but Ace is a lot older and wiser these days, and Aldred plays it as such. It’s a much more appealing take on her character than I am used to these days because it gives Aldred the chance to tackle the subtler aspects of Ace’s character, rather than having her shouting her head off all the time, which is the bane of her performance. It’s just a really fun dynamic between her and Richardson and I wouldn’t mind more stories of this ilk between the two of them. The Doctor sent her to Gallifrey for a reason and she wants to do her bit. As such she’s eager to take her part in the Time War. Dodgy landings and mysterious locations makes this feel like old times for Ace. She learnt most of what she knows from a freelance Professor. She’s not without pity when faced with a Dalek in distress. Are the Obscura energies making Ace paranoid or is it just the case of working with Brax? Ace’s silence in the final scene is deafening. Amazing how effective she can be when she just shuts up. She respected Brax at the start of this.

Standout Performance: Prepare yourselves because I’m going to say something that is going to stun you rigid…Sophie Aldred is simply fandabbydoozy (TM The Rapture, for its sins…) in this story! Seriously! I know I bang on about how much Aldred struggles in the role of the younger Ace that she keeps being portrayed as in the 7th Doctor audios but this script is a different kettle of fish altogether. She’s given some challenging material and she rises to the occasion magnificently. The climax featuring her and Brax in the TARDIS is extremely raw and I truly felt the weight of her experience with both the Doctor and Brax weighing on her. How annoying that she seems to be jettisoned from the series then, just when somebody has figured how to make this character work.

Sparkling Dialogue: ‘I’m sick and tired of Time lords treating people like chess pieces!’ ‘Well maybe that’s the only way we win.’
‘The way he screamed…just like that damaged Dalek. If that’s what this War will do to us…’

Great Ideas: Just look at that cover. When I commented that the cover of the final instalment of the eighth Doctor Time War set lacked skill, this is the sort of work I was looking for. Ace looks amazing dressed in more sophisticated clothes than usual and overall it looks like a still taking from an actual episode. One that I could get quite excited about. Back in the Dark Times of Gallifrey there were many Temporal Wars. All that remains today are the many broken battlefields and the largest of these is an area known as the Obscura. It’s sealed off in a fold of space time because it’s so oversaturated with temporal energy it would be incredibly foolish to enter it. So paradoxical is this region that it is impossible to look at it. Even the slightest glimpse at the Obscura is enough to shatter your mind. Danna was Brax’s mentor and one of the finest military strategists that Gallifrey has ever seen. There’s the broken and twisted remains of nearly 300 Daleks in the hold and if they aren’t dead on arrival, Danna soon takes care of them. 12 years ago they started to arrive on the Obscura and they look…different. Daleks with wings? That’s novel. They have attempted to graft all kinds of technology onto themselves in an attempt to steer themselves through the Obscura. You’ve got to give it to the Daleks, they never truly give up until they are dead. For the Daleks to corrupt their purity like that they must have been desperate. Danna has been testing on them and has discovered that their pain threshold is remarkably high. I love the idea of Daleks sacrificing themselves like sheep being driven across a minefield, travelling the Obscura in the hope of a safe path so they can activate their beacons and guide the others. The Obscura is the biggest tear in space and time and this station has formed a frame gateway to a thousand dimensions. If an invasion is imminent, this station would be the perfect launchpad. Danna guarding the weapon is a form of retirement for her as she doesn’t do so well in peacetime. After Brax showed a Dalek a few pages of a book about the Obscura it couldn’t stop screaming. Brax wants the Daleks to be interested in the weapon…will you come into my parlour said the spider to the fly.

Audio Landscape: A massive point in its favour is how the Gallifrey Time War set isn’t reducing the conflict to scenes of Daleks screaming EXTERMINATE with a crossfire of gunplay but instead taking a far more intellectual approach. The John Hurt and eighth Doctor sets had the irritating ability to reduce the war to all sound and fury, signifying very little. Soldier Obscura has far more atmosphere for holding back on the sound effects. Sometimes less is a lot more. When the Dalek comes to life singing deranged nursery rhymes, it’s all the more chilling for the previous restraint.

Standout Scene: Brax’s solution to the problem of Danna’s age slowing her down. Holy fuck! I always knew he was like the Avon of Doctor Who, the anti-hero who was willing to do anything to get results…but oh my word. This takes that moment from Orbit when Avon hunts Villa through the shuttle and takes it up a notch further. Gripping stuff. Also, the ‘welcome to the mind of a coward, Ace!’, which is just astonishingly raw in it’s mind rape of a beloved character. He violates her mind with violence in a way that even she can’t conceive. It might be Brax’s vilest act yet and if the Doctor ever found out…

Result: ‘And I’m not prepared to lose…’ Bubbling with superb ideas and imagery and featuring terrific chemistry between Ace and Braxiatel, Soldier Obscura continues to raise the game of the Gallifrey Time War set. The Daleks are attempting to annexe a gateway to a thousand dimensions in order to launch the Time War, the battlefield of a previous temporal war tucked away in paradoxical madness. That’s the sort imaginative lunacy I have been looking for and I love how this is a story that sees temporal conflicts of the past and future collide. You would think that the Time Lords would have learnt not to stoke the fire so much these days, given they have the proof of the destruction and loss of life of wars gone by. One thing this set is getting very right is the perfect mix of both character and plot. I need both to secure my attention and more often than not it is the character side of things that is absent in order to fill the running time with a ton of ideas and exposition. I think Scott Handcock focuses on thrilling character drama as a necessity (again ranges like Dorian Gray have honed this instinct) and he’s ensured that his writers have made interaction and growth a priority in Gallifrey. Ace and Brax just work, it’s like her relationship with the 7th Doctor taken up to eleven because Brax makes no secret of the fact that he will do whatever it takes to secure his goals and there is an underlying feeling that she is expendable if it comes to it. It feels dangerous, which the dialogue between them is witty and enjoyable. The ideas feel bolder and more creative too, I feel the Time War is being portrayed on a much greater canvas and with some truly twisted notions. Something akin to a Joss Whedon style finale is brewing, I can tell. Each story is introducing big concepts but not following through with them. I have a feeling the finale of this set is going to see these ideas come together and make quite a dramatic impact. Solider Obscura (great title) is another one of the puzzle pieces, but it’s very well written, features very good character work and kept my interest throughout. I’m surprised about how much we learnt about Brax as he is usually such an obscure character and he STILL manages to surprise me despite that. More gold: 9/10

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